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by Staff Writer - C. Barnett | April 05, 2011

Barbera is an Italian red wine which has similar qualities to Merlot, but is not as popular. It is grown extensively in the Piedmont region in Italy. Barbera is a rich, robust, ruby red wine that is made with the Barbera grape. This grape is what contributes the deep garnet colors, medium to full body, and light tannin levels. Typical aromas for Barbera wine are black cherry and roses. Typical flavors for Barbera can include blackberries, black cherries, blueberries and raspberries. In warmer growing areas, the Barbera grape develops high sugar levels and consequently, high alcohol levels. For a wine to carry the Barbera label, the wine must be at least 12% alcohol. Barbera makes Italy’s Barbera D’Asti, Barbera d’Alba, and Barbera del Monferrator. Barbera does very well in Italy and is now the third most planted red grape there.

The Barbera Wine Scandal

In 1985, the Piedmont region in Italy was shocked by a wine scandal involving Barbera wine producers who added methanol to their wines. 8 Italians died and more than 30 others were hospitalized after they drank Odore Barbera red wine. This wine was contaminated by up to 5.7% methyl alcohol, which is a deadly dose way above the legally permitted amount of .3%. Adding to the scandal was another woman from the Piedmont region who was hospitalized after she drank a bottle of Fraris Dolcetto del Piedmonte which also contained methyl alcohol.

At the time, the theory behind the scandal was that the contamination resulted from a criminal effort by one or more wine dealers to boost their profits. Because the price of bulk wine is determined in part by its alcohol content, some wine dealers have on occasion added methyl, or wood, to their product. This increases the alcohol content of the wine which raises the wine’s value. But unlike the ethyl alcohol that is naturally found in wine, methyl alcohol in sizable doses can cause blindness and/or death.

Eventually the Italian police traced the poisoned Barbera back to Giovanni Ciravegna, a 57 year old man, and his 27 year old son Daniele, who ran a wine distribution outlet in Piedmont. They were arrested on multiple charges of manslaughter. Police suspected that the two men bought the contaminated wine from Antonio Fusco, a vintner from the southern region of Taranto. Fusco continued to claim his innocence.

Italian officials feared that the scandal would turn into a disaster by badly damaging a wine industry that accounted for over $950 million in exports that year. Italian Agriculture Minister Filippo Maria Pandolfi announced a new regulation that required all wine marked for export to carry a government certificate of purity.

California Barbera

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There are only a few wineries in California that produce Barbera because there is not a large consumer demand for this grape. Most of the wineries producing a Barbera wine are in the Sierra Foothills and a few wineries in the Paso Robles wine region. Many of the best California Barbera offerings fall into the boutique category in terms of production. This means that under a thousand cases are produced which make the wine not widely available. Most wine consumers have not heard of Barbera and that means they will not seek to purchase it.

Barbera Food Pairings

A Barbera wine can age for 5 years or more. Barbera is one of the most food friendly wines, complementing many foods. The low tannins and high acidity of Barbera make it a flexible wine that goes well with multiple types of food. Tomato dishes, pasta, pizza, hard cheese, barbeque and rich meat dishes are wonderful companions to Barbera.

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